In the 1920s, after Prohibition came into existence, next on the list of targeted habits was smoking. Foremost in demanding the elimination of tobacco was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Their first victory was in getting several States to pass laws against cigarettes. The WCTU went on from there to demand the eradication of all forms of tobacco. A specimen of one of the WCTU leaflets reads as follows:
Tobacco robs families of food and other necessities. The cigarette fiend will steal money from his mother’s purse, rob his father’s till or pawn books from the family library in order to secure cigarettes. The tobacco sot will buy tobacco to feed his degraded appetite while the bread bin is depleted, the sugar bowl empty, the milk supply inadequate, the cookie jar desolate and the children suffer for sweets.
These sorts of moral crusades, such as the self-righteous wrath against tobacco, recur in North America every so often. In the time of the Pilgrims and Puritans, the supposed purpose was to save souls. Today the supposed purpose of the anti-tobacco zealots is to save health. Before, it was “holier than thou”; now it is “healthier than thou.” In the Pilgrim/Puritan times, laws and more laws were believed to be the solution to the tobacco “problem.” Today, the anti-tobacco zealots have refined this into a gradual tip-toeing in of restrictions. Both Pilgrims and Plodders had/have great faith in the power of laws. But how effective were the anti-tobacco laws of the Pilgrim/Puritan times?
The average Puritan liked tobacco so well that he not only smoked but drank it. “Of the nature of the concoction made from it the records do not tell.” But the New England Company sought to end enjoyment of tobacco. In its First General Letter of April 17, 1629, the New England Company prohibited the planting of tobacco “unless in small quantity for physic to preserve health.” Tobacco use was to be for “medicinal purposes only.” This anti-tobacco decree of 1629 was the beginning of a labyrinth of anti-smoking laws. The Puritans and other sects were convinced that laws could change human ways and mold humankind in any form desired. “Therefore it was necessary only to enact laws and ever more laws…”
A Puritan law of September 6, 1638 restrained servants from smoking. Its effect was to goad them to a clandestine use of tobacco. In 1646 the Puritans enacted a new law: “No smoking except on a journey, and that must be five miles outside of any town.”
In their contest with tobacco, the Puritan authorities were utterly defeated. Laws regarding tobacco remained on the books, but they were ignored.
Plymouth Colony, settled by the Pilgrims, also had an anti-tobacco crusade. A law of 1638 forbid smoking on the streets. A law of 1639 forbid jurymen from smoking. A law of 1641 forbid the importation of tobacco. But the law of 1638 did not stop smoking on the streets. Pilgrims even smoked on the Sabbath, and even on their way to church! Another law was passed in 1669 forbidding such “blasphemy.”
In Connecticut and elsewhere there was a prevalent notion that tobacco had virtue as a medicine. And so, to help counteract this, a new law in Connecticut ordered that a physician’s certificate had to be obtained, along with a license from the court, before any person could legally take up the habit of smoking. Another Connecticut law forbid smoking on the streets in order to protect non-smokers from inhalations. A Connecticut law of 1647 sternly decreed that only solitary smoking was permitted.
Defying all these mighty laws, the New England settlers “fastened doors, used cellars for tobacco parties, and did homage to Lady Nicotine in secluded woodland spots or in boats anchored at a safe distance from shore.”
“The very Pilgrims and Puritans whose works are idealized by our modern crusaders were such inveterate smokers that every law passed against smoking was ineffective.”
(Source: Ye Olden Blue Laws, by Gustavus Myers. New York: The Century Co., 1921.)